Digital Diva: Speaking the Language of Everyday People

REDMOND, Wash., Apr. 6, 2000 — When Stacy Elliott came to Seattle three years ago from Dallas to take a job at Microsoft, she had a bit of a rude awakening. A marketing executive with a long and successful career that included stints handling public relations for name brands like Frito-Lay, American Airlines, and Lever Brothers, as well as at the Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, Elliott joined the company in 1996 as a public relations manager for consumer hardware and software products. Her extensive background in consumer marketing was more than adequate preparation for the job of managing promotions, events and public relations for products like Microsoft Encarta and the Microsoft keyboard and mouse. What she wasn’t as ready for, however, was talking about those products with her fellow workers at Microsoft.

“To be honest, I didn’t really even know the difference between hardware and software back then,”
she remembers.
“For the first couple of months, a lot of what people were talking about went straight over my head. It was very intimidating.”

To cope, Elliott took extensive notes during meetings, writing down every word, abbreviation, and acronym that she didn’t know, then looking them up when she got back to the office. She also found a friendly coworker who not only provided her with a 15-page list of computer jargon abbreviations to use as reference, but whom she could rely on to answer her questions without having to worry that he would laugh at her lack of knowledge.

“I spent a lot of time reading that list because I was afraid if I asked a lot questions during meetings, people would think I wasn’t getting it,”
she says.
“There I was, a woman with a long and productive career in marketing and communications, and sitting around feeling stupid was very difficult for me.”

Three years later, Elliott’s days as a technology novice are far behind her. However, a few things from those early days made a strong impression. One was the kindness of the coworker who provided the list and answered her questions with a straight face. She was so impressed, in fact, that she married him.

She also still remembers the feeling of dislocation at being a beginner in a land of experts and the sense of helplessness as she struggled to master the ins and outs of technology. According to Elliott, those are feelings that millions of other people share as they struggle to take advantage of the benefits of the digital revolution.

“There are a lot of people who feel that way today,”
says Elliott.
“They’re afraid to ask their friends a simple question like ‘what is a browser, what does it do?’ We all think that everybody knows that stuff, but the fact is that many people don’t.”

Driven by a desire to help people become more comfortable with technology, Elliott is the force behind a new Microsoft Web site, , which went live on April 3. Each month, the site will focus on a different issue. The first topic is
“Getting started in technology.”
Other topics to be covered include privacy online, and how parents can keep up with their technology-savvy kids. The site will also provide product-specific how-to articles and offer the
“Diva’s Dictionary,”
a no-nonsense, plain-language explanation of computer terms. is just one part of a wide-ranging program launched by Elliott earlier this year. Introduced in January by Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates at the Computer Electronic Show, the initiative is designed to provide guidance and support for consumers who are new to technology. Elliott’s new job is to be Microsoft’s consumer ambassador and simplicity spokesperson, serving as an advocate for people who are just beginning to explore the possibilities offered by digital technologies. Her title: Digital Diva.

During the next eight months, Elliott will travel to more than 20 cities and meet with a wide variety of community groups — including Junior League chapters, parent-teacher associations, professional women’s groups and senior citizen’s organizations — whose members may be new to technology. She’ll address such topics as privacy, safety, education, personal finance management, digital photography, online shopping and digital devices for the home. Her goal is to help new users overcome their fear and see how computer technologies can make their lives easier and more enjoyable.

“As we were preparing to launch the Digital Diva program, we did a great deal of research to find out what was happening in the marketplace,”
says Elliott.
“We found that there is a lot of interest and excitement about new technology, but also a lot of fear and confusion. We thought it would be really helpful to have a spokesperson who can help people get started. The fact that I’ve been through it and really understand how it feels helps me to be both a friend and an advocate.”

In addition to speaking to community groups, Elliott will also meet with editors and publishers of magazines and newspapers, and television and radio broadcasters, to help the media understand the needs of people who may be new to using technology.

“Historically, most technology coverage has been found in business magazines and men’s magazines,”
she says.
“Much of what they do is centered around products and gadgets. I’d like to see coverage that is more holistic, that looks at how technology can save people time and money, and how it affects their lives. So part of my job will be to frame technology in everyday language that is valuable for readers and viewers and meets the needs of the media.”

Intimidating — Even for Experienced Users

In the last three years, the number of households in the United States with a personal computer has increased 40 percent, from 35 million in 1996 to more than 50 million in 1999, and the percentage of PC-owning households is rapidly approaching the 60 percent mark. Meanwhile, the number of Internet users in this country has zoomed passed the 100 million mark, up from 68 million in 1998. Today, three out of four students have access to a computer through their schools. E-mail has quickly become a standard form of communication for many people and online commerce is an increasingly attractive option for everything from purchasing plane tickets to buying CDs to ordering groceries.

But not everyone is benefiting equally from the digital revolution. As impressive as that 60 percent figure for household PC ownership is, it also means that two out of every five homes in this country do not yet have a PC. As electronic communication and Internet-based commerce become a more important part of our social fabric, it is clear that millions of people are at risk of being left behind.

For some households, of course, there are financial barriers that are preventing them from joining the wired world. But as the price of technology drops, the barriers for many people are more personal than financial. Elliott believes this can be especially true for women. According to a poll conducted for Microsoft in late December by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, 72 percent of women 30 years of age or older find it intimidating to buy technology products because they feel that advertisements are not written so that the average person can understand them; two out of three reported that they had had a problem with a technology product because they couldn’t figure out how to make it work; 95 percent felt that high-tech companies should have someone available who could answer questions in simple terms.

That survey found that even women who use computers on a regular basis are often uncomfortable with technology: of the women 30 years and older who said they frequently feel intimidated by technology, more than half have been using a computer for at least four years.

One problem, says Elliott, is that people in the technology business tend to fall back on abbreviation-laced jargon that is very confusing to the uninitiated.
“If people sit down with their grandmother and try to explain some of this stuff, they’ll really realize how hard it can be,”
she says.
“For those of us who are used to speaking this language, it seems pretty natural, but the truth is, if you’re new to it, it’s not really intuitive at all.”

Another reason that the language of technology can be so impenetrable to the average person is the fact that up until recently, the most important markets for technology centered around business.

“The way technology makers need to communicate with consumers is very different than with business buyers,”
Elliot explains.
“People in the business world are looking for the newest features that can give them an edge and they’re focused on change and momentum. For people using technology at home, it’s all about making life more convenient and more fun. We in the technology world are just starting to do a better job of learning to speak the language of the consumer.”

A Commitment to New Users

While the most visible part of Elliott’s job as Digital Diva will be to serve as Microsoft’s ambassador to home technology users, an equally important part of her job will be to represent consumers as an advocate for simplicity within Microsoft. In addition to meeting with community organizations and journalists while on the road, she’ll have discussions with groups of new users and people who aren’t using computers at all, to talk about their attitudes toward technology and to get a better sense of the issues they face.

Elliott will take the information she collects at those focus groups and present it to a newly formed Microsoft team that includes representatives from all of Microsoft’s consumer product groups. The data will be utilized to help programmers and developers design products that are easy for consumers to understand and use.

“In addition to helping consumers feel comfortable with new technologies,”
says Elliott,
“I am also going to help Microsoft become extremely sensitive to the language we use for all kinds of things, from what’s on the screen of your computer to the words we put on the box to our ads on television, and even the way we talk to consumers.”

According to Elliott, the Digital Diva program is evidence that Microsoft is truly committed to meeting the needs of people who are new to technology.
“I think it’s a sign of real leadership on the part of Microsoft to be willing to support an initiative like this,”
she says.
“I have a lot of regard for the executives at the company for understanding that it’s important to have someone out there talking to new users about how technology can help their lives. It says a lot about the company and about our dedication to help people learn about technology.”

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